Benedict de Spinoza was born as Baruch on 24 November 1632 in Amsterdam. His parents were Michael de Spinoza and his second wife Hannah, who died in 1638, after which his father married a woman named Esther. The native language of Spinoza was Portuguese, but young ‘Bento’ as he was called was taught in Spanish, by the society of Ets Haim, an educational brotherhood within the Jewish community of Amsterdam. Since Spinoza never attended the highest level of this school, he was probably not destined to become a rabbi. Instead, he succeeded his half-brother Isaac, who died in 1649, in the family business. Until then, the Spinozas had been fairly successful in importing Mediterranean fruits. In 1653 Spinoza’s stepmother died and in 1654 his father died, leaving an estate heavily in debt. Bento and his brother Gabriel struggled to avoid bankruptcy, but in 1656 Spinoza was banned from the Jewish community, which put an end to his life as a Jewish businessman. We know so little about the circumstances of his expulsion that it seems unwise to speculate as to the views he may have developed by this time. He is thought to have been an excellent student, taught by such famous scholars as the rabbi Menasseh ben Israel , but he seems to have been a particular source of annoyance to the dogmatic rabbi Saul Levi Mortera , according to one report on account of his critical remarks on the Law of Moses, the immortality of the soul and the existence of God. He may well have made friends with Juan de Prado , who was also banned, in 1658. We do know for certain, however, that following the ban Spinoza changed his first name to Benedict and that he attended the Amsterdam Latin School of Franciscus van den Enden , a former Jesuit from Antwerp who would become notorious in his own right as a freethinker.
By the early 1660s Spinoza had moved to Rijnsburg, near Leiden, and had written two important texts: an unfinished Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione (Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding) that would only be published in the Opera Posthuma (1677) and the Korte Verhandeling van God, de Mensch en deszelvs Welzijn (Short Treatise on God, Man and his Well-Being), which was not published until 1862 by the Dutch Spinozist Johannes van Vloten. From Spinoza’s correspondence it becomes clear that well before he published anything, the young philosopher had become the intellectual leader of an Amsterdam circle of admirers, including the Mennonite merchants Pieter Balling and Jarich Jelles , who were studying his manuscripts. They also supported him financially, although Spinoza made some of his own money as a lens-grinder. Other early friends must have included such freethinkers as Adriaan Koerbagh and Lodewijk Meyer . Apparently, they studied an early version of Spinoza’s magnum opus in the making, the Ethics.
Spinoza’s Amsterdam friends must also have been among the most avid readers of Spinoza’s debut, an introduction to the philosophy of René Descartes , which was published in 1663, and is commonly referred to as the Principia Philosophiae Cartesianae/Cogitata Metaphysica. Within a year a Dutch translation by Balling was issued. In 1665, after Spinoza had moved to Voorburg, he laid aside the Ethics in order to start work on the Tractatus theologico-politicus, published anonymously in 1670. By this time, Spinoza had moved to The Hague, where he completed the Ethics in 1675. At first he wanted to publish it, but on the advice of his friends he decided not to. In The Hague he had witnessed the collapse of the stadholderless regime under Johan de Witt (1672), after the French had invaded the Republic. During the early years of the stadholderate of William III, future king of England, the Tractatus theologico-politicus was officially banned by the States of Holland (1674), together with, for instance, Lodewijk Meyer’s Philosophia S. Scripturae Interpres (1666), forcing Spinoza into a largely clandestine existence as a philosopher, until his death on 21 February 1677 in The Hague as a result of tuberculosis.
To Spinoza’s great disappointment, his authorship of the Tractatus had soon become public knowledge. Moreover, its contents had been violently attacked by all sorts of Dutch authors, including the distinguished Remonstrant minister Jacobus Batelier, the young and brilliant Utrecht Cartesian Regnerus van Mansvelt , and the Rotterdam Collegiant Johannes Bredenburg . The publication of the Tractatus had ruined Spinoza’s reputation. This must have been a particularly upsetting experience, since he was not attacked by Calvinist hardliners such as Gisbert Voetius , but rather by more ‘liberal’ authors whom he must have expected to be able to address without being accused of atheism. Finally, due to the efforts of his Amsterdam friends, the Ethics appeared in the Opera Posthuma together with the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione, a Hebrew Grammar, (parts of) his correspondence and an unfinished Tractatus politicus. All of Spinoza’s books were published in Amsterdam by Jan Rieuwertsz .
At the time of his death, Spinoza was widely regarded as an atheist. Yet many prominent scientists and scholars had been looking for his friendship, including the young Leibniz. Henri Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, put Spinoza into contact with Robert Boyle. Christiaan Huygens admired him as an optician. What is more, recent research has convincingly established that his impact on the early Enlightenment was far more profound than had been recognized previously. Many French radicals were inspired by his writings, but during the eighteenth century also in Germany, England and the Dutch Republic itself ‘Spinozism’ remained a force to be reckoned with.
There seems to be little doubt that the chief purpose of Spinoza’s thought is a moral one. From the opening lines of the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione to his mature masterpiece, the Ethics, Spinoza insists that he is mainly concerned in identifying man’s summum bonum, since it is only through his insight into his highest good that man is able to lead a truly happy life. In order to reach this state, however, Spinoza in the Ethics first puts forward a highly particular metaphysics (Part I), an extremely sophisticated epistemology (II), and a very detailed theory of the passions (III and IV), which in turn provides the point of departure both for a philosophical perspective on man’s ‘beatitude’ (V) and for the articulation of a revolutionary political theory in the final chapters of the Tractatus theologico-politicus and in its sequel, the Tractatus politicus.
In Spinoza’s view, metaphysics and ethics are closely related in the sense that he regards an adequate insight into man’s relationship to God as the first step towards virtue. According to Spinoza, man is not a substance, nor a composite of different substances, such as Thought or Extension, but rather the product, or a ‘modification’ of the unique, infinite substance that is God or Nature. This single substance, which alone is causa sui or ‘its own cause’, consists of infinitely many attributes, each of which is infinite ‘in its own kind’. Of these attributes, man knows only two, namely Thought and Extension, since he himself is a composite modification of these two attributes, in that he has a mind and a body. Every single ‘mode’ is caused by God’s infinite power which necessarily produces the whole of nature, which, however, exists ‘in’ God Himself, for the simple reason that on account of God’s absolute infinity it cannot exist anywhere else. As a consequence, man and the world he inhabits exist in God as the result of His infinite productivity, and God is not to be conceived of as the transcendent cause of Nature, but as its immanent cause.
Since every mode expresses the infinite power with which God realizes His essence, every mode is characterized by what Spinoza calls its conatus, that is its striving for self-preservation. In man this natural urge takes on a double aspect since he consists of mind and body. What goes on in both these modalities, however, is an expression of one and the same ‘order and connection’, as Spinoza puts it. In his view the mind is nothing but the idea of a certain body, and the ideas the mind has are mental correlates of the ways in which its body is being affected by other bodies. Just as bodies only affect each other, ideas only hold causal relationships with other ideas. Because ideas by definition reflect a definite state of affairs, resulting from the interaction of one particuar modification with the rest of nature, ideas as such cannot be ‘false’. The ways, however, in which they reflect a particular state of affairs vary decidedly in that some convey a more adequate, that is a more complete representation of nature than others.
The constant and inevitable confrontation of the human organism with its surroundings not only produces a cognitive representation of its environment, but the particular way in which man interrelates with nature also evokes emotional responses, and at the very heart of Spinoza’s philosophy lies the claim that in principle man is able to influence his emotions for the better by gaining insight into the nature, that is the cause of his passions. In this way Spinoza’s theory of knowledge is closely tied to a wider psychological assessment of the human condition. According to Spinoza there are three kinds of knowledge, or to put it differently, three succeeding stages of insight into the order and connection of things. First there is the primitive stage of imagination, arising from a particular experience which necessarily conveys incomplete images of the world and ourselves. Second, once we compare various of these isolated images to each other and discover how much bodies have in common, we develop so-called notiones communes, general truths, from which the mind is able to deduce adequate ideas. It is this process of deduction that Spinoza calls ‘reason’, which in his view should not be considered a mental faculty. Nor is there, Spinoza claims, such a faculty as ‘will’. What we are used to identify as such is nothing but the mind’s awareness of natural desire. Once the mind becomes reasonable, it understands the necessity of natural processes, including the ones that affect man himself. The third and final kind of knowledge Spinoza calls scientia intuitiva, that is intuitive knowledge, according to which we understand the necessity of nature at a glance. Once the mind has reached this level of insight, it realizes its actual nature. Being a modification of substance, it grasps singular things for what they truly are. Thus man is capable, Spinoza argues, of acquiring a certain freedom in the sense that he is able to be and to act more in accordance with his human nature than he would have been without this particular insight. What is more, the realization of this kind of knowledge has far-reaching consequences for our emotional response to the world.
According to the Ethics, our interaction with the rest of nature can affect us in two different ways: either it increases our ability to persevere in our existence or it decreases our power to do so. The things that happen to us produce either joy or sadness. All human emotions can be reduced to these basic states of mind, and it is a crucial claim of Spinozism as a comprehensive philosophy that man is able to improve the quality of the way in which nature affects him, by trying to understand why we are affected by the outside world in the way that we are. Once we truly understand how a certain chain of events naturally produces, for instance, jealousy, we are able, or so Spinoza contends, to overcome this sad, essentially harmful passion. The very act of understanding the nature, that is the cause of anything naturally produces joy. This is why understanding God or Nature as such produces the ultimate joy, resulting in the state of blessedness that constitutes man’s highest good. To the horror of some commentators and to the delight of others, Spinoza at this stage introduces an almost mystical description of the wise man, able to perceive things sub specie aeternitatis (under the aspect of eternity), and enjoying amor intellectualis Dei (intellectual love of God).
A crucial element in Spinoza’s theory of the passions is his recognition of man’s natural sociability. In opposition to Hobbes, a philosopher whom Spinoza otherwise admired, he claims that it is only natural to seek the happiness of our fellow-men. Since man is aware of his similarity to and his kinship with other people, he naturally feels affected by what happens to them. Accordingly, it just makes good sense to promote the well-being of one’s neighbour, and we are naturally inclined to bond. It is clear from this that the political philosophy put forward in Spinoza’s political treatises is closely related to the moral psychology developed in the Ethics. Although much in these treatises should be seen in direct relation to the exciting political context in which Spinoza lived, in particular his defence of democracy as the most natural form of government was revolutionary in his days. It was intimately linked both to his ‘horizontal’ metaphysics – characterized by a very modern absence of any ontological hierarchy – and to his conviction that man, instead of aspiring to an inevitably illusory, personal autonomy, is best advised to co-operate with his fellow-men.
It should be added, however, that Spinoza’s insistence on the political necessity to cultivate the awareness of common interests does not imply the recognition on his part of the advisability to cut short on the personal liberties of political subjects. In fact, his political philosophy seems to be designed to provide an answer to the question of how to establish a political community that is stable enough to afford its subjects a substantial degree of personal freedom, especially as regards their choice of religion and their libertas philosophandi, that is their freedom to philosophize. On the one hand, or so Spinoza argues, freedom only enhances the subjects’ loyalty to their sovereign, while on the other hand, there are no theological reasons to limit the personal freedom of anyone to pursue their interests in philosophy, for the simple reason that theology and philosophy are two completely different disciplines that cannot harm each other.
Spinoza’s attempt to separate theology from philosophy is largely based on a highly innovative assessment of the true meaning of the Bible. In the Tracatus theologico-politicus Spinoza argues that the Scriptures convey only a single, essentially moral lesson. They demand obedience: in the Old Testament the Jews are told that they should obey the Law, the New Testament teaches mankind to obey God. According to Spinoza both demands can be reduced to the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself. As a consequence, theology should be regarded as an essentially moral discipline, whereas philosophy is concerned with the discovery of truths. Although many of Spinoza’s early readers were outraged by his treatment of the Bible and the subversive way in which he dealt with the professional expertise of theologians, and although many admirers of the Ethics have often found it difficult to account for Spinoza’s recognition that the Bible succeeds in delivering a morality equally capable of effecting – some sort of – salvation, it does not seem too far-fetched to state that the outcome of the moral philosophy contained in the Ethics does not differ fundamentally from the biblical morality Spinoza claims to deduce from scripture.
The uneasiness even among Spinoza scholars over the precise relationship between the Ethics and the Tractatus theologico-politicus must probably also be attributed to the completely different styles in which these two works were written. In many ways, the Tractatus is part of a highly rhetorical, party-political tradition of pamphlets arguing in favour of toleration. Moreover, Spinoza’s praise for the stadholder-less regime and his warning against bestowing political powers on the clergy and, even worse, establishing a monarchy over a people not accustomed to living under kings, fits hand in glove with a tradition first established by such supporters of the States as Lambert van Velthuysen and Johan and Pieter de la Court . By contrast, the Ethics is modelled on Euclid’s Elements. Each of the five parts starts with a number of definitions and axioms, on the basis of which dozens of propositions are ‘geometrically’ demonstrated to be true. This results in a ‘mathematical’ morality, the chief rhetorical purpose of which seems to have been to provide a philosophy that on account of its mathematical certainty should be able to put an end to the moral and political disputes that not only undermined the unity and concord of the Dutch Republic, but nearly destroyed other nations in Europe during the seventeenth century.
After Spinoza died, his views continued to attract considerable attention, to the obvious dismay of the Dutch clergy, represented by such eminent theologians as Christophorus Wittichius , and of many influential philosophers such as Pierre Bayle , insisting on the atheist nature of his thought. Bayle famously concluded that Spinoza had been the first systematic, and therefore the most dangerous atheist in European philosophy. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries many dozens of refutations of Spinozism were published all over Europe. It is, however, precisely the apparent anxiety over Spinoza’s views that indicates the degree to which many early Enlightenment thinkers were captivated by his thought. To begin with, Spinoza’s writings would continue to inspire all sorts of Dutch religious thinkers and libertines, including such unorthodox Calvinists as Willem Deurhoff , Petrus van Balen , and Frederik van Leenhof , and the radical satirist Johannes Duijkerius . A particularly curious kind of ‘Spinozism’ was to be developed by the erudite pornographer Adriaan Beverland . The Dutch Refuge was equally interested. Disaffected Huguenots living in Holland after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 appear to have been responsible, for instance, for the composition and dissemination of L’Esprit de Spinosa, also known as the Traité des trois imposteurs, probably the most notorious eighteenth-century clandestine manuscript. Radical deists such as John Toland were also indebted to Spinoza, as were early Enlightenment luminaries from Germany (E.W. von Tschirnhaus, F.W. Stosch, J.G. Wächter, T.L. Lau). Eighteenth-century French materialism came to be associated with Spinozism as well.
Arguably the most fascinating aspect of Spinoza’s legacy is the way in which during the 1780s German critics of the French Enlightenment turned to Spinoza in order to overcome what they felt to be the dreariness of materialism. In the wake of the so-called Pantheismusstreit, Spinoza became a major source of inspiration for both Schelling and Hegel. After the heyday of German Idealism Spinoza’s writings continued to draw attention among both laymen and professional philosophers. Yet academic Spinoza scholarship did not come into its own until the late 1960s when French experts started to produce a series of commentaries on the Ethics and the Tractatus theologico-politicus that set a completely new standard. Italian, German, Dutch and American scholars followed suit, and today around the world there are eight international Spinoza societies, bringing together the efforts of dozens of specialists, most of whom at one time or another publish their findings in Studia Spinozana, an international yearbook edited and published in Germany. As a result of this renaissance, a new and definitive edition of Spinoza’s writings is under way as well.
Most experts have come to agree that Spinoza’s philosophy is intimately linked to Descartes’s, from whom he borrowed most of his terminology. However, by pushing the latter’s conceptual vocabulary to its ultimate conclusion, Spinoza ended up with a view of the world that differs in many respects from Cartesianism. Spinoza has often been called a consummate rationalist, and it will come as no surprise that in spite of the Cartesio-scholastic concepts employed in the Ethics, including ‘substance’, ‘attribute’ and ‘mode’, he has repeatedly been heralded as a quintessentially ‘modern’ thinker. It should be added, however, that it seems no coincidence that after World War II he was rediscovered by a generation of French philosophers closely associated with the rise of ‘post-modernism’. In particular the way in which he abandoned the Cartesian conception of the ego, replacing it with a metaphysics that takes its point of departure from Deus sive Natura (God or Nature), producing mutually affective modes, appears to have inspired recent French critics of the idealist tradition in philosophy, which centres on the subject and its rationality.
Difficult as it may be to predict the course of future scholarship, this much seems certain that at the moment at least two important challenges present themselves. On the one hand, it remains to be seen to what extent Anglo-Saxon philosophers will be willing and able to pursue the attempt to integrate Spinoza into the analytical canon of Great Philosophers. Although continental philosophers have widely come to agree on his importance, many British and American philosophers seem to prefer to keep him politely at a distance as an interesting but obscure sage. Serious attempts to regard Spinoza as more than a figure of historical interest remain rare beyond the European Continent. The second issue that will probably attract considerable attention in the near future is the relevance of Spinoza’s Jewish background. So far, a serious lack of documentary evidence relating to his early development has made it very difficult to asses his ‘Jewishness’. Perhaps a sustained research effort will in the future clarify some of the questions involved both in relation to his expulsion from the Jewish community and his subsequent career as a philosopher.
[Anon.], Tractatus Theologico-Politicus Continens Dissertationes aliquot, Quibus ostenditur Libertatem Philosophandi non tantum salva Pietate, & Reipublicae Pace posse concedi: sed eandem nisi cum Pace Reipublicae, ipsaque Pietate tolli non posse (Amsterdam, 1670).